The Unraveling Of The Religious Right?: Trump Confounds Morality Politics

11/01/2016 11:26 pm ET | Updated Nov 08, 2016
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Donald Trump delivering a speech at Liberty University in January, 2015.

Some Liberty University students don’t approve of The Donald. And it’s not because of his attitudes towards Russia or ideas regarding foreign policy and immigration. It’s not because of an economic plan, or lack thereof, or the mysterious tax records. Instead, it’s because of questions regarding the candidate’s morality. When Liberty students issued a public petition admonishing their university president, Jerry Falwell, Jr., for continuing to support the Republican candidate, they argued that not only is Trump “a bad candidate for president, he is actively promoting the very things that we as Christians ought to oppose.” Falwell disagreed, asking students to “[j]udge not, lest ye be judged.” After the infamous Access Hollywood tapes were released, after news about the candidate’s questionable business dealings, after Trump professed that he never has nor will seek forgiveness for anything that he has done, Falwell’s response was seemingly simple: “Let’s stop trying to choose the political leaders who we believe are the most godly because, in reality, only God knows people’s hearts. You and I don’t, and we are all sinners.”

But the late Jerry Falwell, Sr., would almost certainly have disagreed with his son’s separation of godliness and political leadership. In the 1970s, Falwell worked with popular fundamentalist Christian leaders to promote and grow a moral agenda to inject into national politics, inexorably linking faith and presidential elections, Supreme Court decisions, and legislation (see Lauren Turek’s post at the Christian Century). This fundamentalist movement was a (successful) attempt to imbue political discourse and debate with religious language and spiritual import and to begin to dismantle the separation between church and state. Whereas religion had always been part of political discourse, the Moral Majority that emerged in the 1970s intentionally pressed for a more direct and bald incorporation of Christian values in politics and legislation. In 1979, Falwell sermonized that Americans “cannot separate the sacred and the secular. We need to train men of God in our schools who can go on to Congress, can go on to be directors in the largest corporations, who can become the lawyers and the businessmen and those important people in tomorrow’s United States” (see America Can Be Saved!). Certainly, based on this reasoning, Falwell’s important people would or should include the nation’s next president.

Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush both adopted a “God strategy” closely related to the political activism of the Moral Majority. This strategy helped promote their presidential campaigns and to demonstrate their fitness for office to the conservative Christian constituency. Reagan referred to America as the “shining” City on a Hill as proclaimed originally by Puritan colonial governor, John Winthrop. And during his administration, Reagan invoked his faith in speeches more than any other president in recent history (see David Domke and Kevin Coe, The God Strategy). The former actor actively connected partisan messages with spiritual signals that made conservative legislation a moral imperative. Similarly, Bush invoked God to an unprecedented degree during his campaign and presidency. He also went so far as to suggest that the opposing party lacked spiritual focus or commitment to the Christian faith. Addressing Falwell, Sr., and fellow crusaders, Bush accused Democrats of constructing a platform that “left out three simple letters, G-O-D.” Both Reagan and Bush appealed to the Religious Right because they expressed a firm commitment to Christian morals and lived a public faith.

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Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell at the Baptist Fundamentalism ‘84 Conference, April 1984.

George W. Bush referred to Christ as his savior and favorite philosopher in the 1999 primary debate. By contrast, Donald Trump has insisted that he will personally, without deference to a Christian savior, protect the nation from impending dangers and destruction. The billionaire businessman declared in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention that *he* is the voice of struggling Americans, without referring to God or Christ at all. Further emphasizing his status as a “baby Christian” (to quote James Dobson), during a visit to Liberty University in 2015, Trump read a passage from “Two” Corinthians, bungling the accepted pronunciation of the book and indicating a lack of knowledge of the New Testament. He does not seem to project the image of a “political priest” that the Moral Majority and Christian Right groomed in their candidates over the past few decades nor does he seem to desire that moniker. Instead, he has glommed on to some of the causes of the Religious Right (like abortion) while neglecting to address foundational issues of evangelical faith (like monogamy, fidelity, humility, honesty).

This election represents a crisis in the Republican Party’s ability to unite the conservative base, to be sure. But it also represents a crisis for the Religious Right as the conservative candidate disrupts the work that they’ve done over the last four decades to increase their influence in national politics. As long as Falwell, Jr., and fellow fundamentalist lights support Trump and ignore his moral shortcomings, the conservative evangelical constituency will continue to splinter until their “moral compass” points in all directions. The Religious Right is facing a reckoning, where believers will have to either confront the fact that politics is a secular sport or they will have to reconfigure their spiritual agenda and commit to promoting a truly morally bound candidate. In other words, we might be watching the evangelicalism’s Come-to-Jesus moment. Or it might be politics as usual and we will finally learn that separation of church and state is a handy thing, after all.